Top image: Stephanie Lee/Rice File Photo
“Anyway, how’s your sex life?”
It’s not a line you’d hear friends ask you – if they do, there’s an 80 percent chance they’re American filmmaker Tommy Wiseau. But variations of this question might ring in your head from time to time.
If you’re single and sexually active, it’s an intrusive reminder (daily, weekly, monthly? your mileage may vary). If you’re not sexually active, it almost sounds like a taunt.
When you’re in a relationship, however, rules of intimacy and clear communication are what make a sex life between two consenting adults healthy. It’s a shared language, one built over years of trust – and obligatory awkwardness – around each other in your most vulnerable.
Hell, it’s why some couples have taken the route of swinging to navigate their own needs, as long as they’re fluent in communicating that. But when those inner lives involve some very important responsibilities, like having kids, there’s no surprise it can get complicated.
Singaporean stories like these – where a couple’s sex life unceremoniously deflates once parenthood sets in – don’t seem all that uncommon. The hierarchy of needs and wants starts to change when it also includes those of children.
“Once you have a new human occupying your living space and needing your care, there will definitely be changes,” says Rick*, a married man of 11 years with two kids.
Rick is a dedicated family man, easy-going and generous with the time he spends with his family despite his hectic work demands.
He is deliberate with his words. Discussing sex openly in Singapore is not something easy, even among adults. Students are still faced with inane roadblocks when it comes to learning about it at the right age, so there are bigger questions to tackle in this subject.
Small Spaces, Big Problems
For me, I’m a single adult with my own set of problems. I’ve always wondered how complicated it can get for a couple in the throes of parenthood. I thought, to break the ice, he could reveal if he considers his sex life good.
“Pretty okay, nothing spectacular?” he shrugs. “Some highlights for sure.” Okay. Let’s try again.
Rick met his partner many years before they tied the knot. “There was good intimacy for the few years before kids. And then [there was] the sex when you’re ‘trying’ for a kid,” he elaborates.
Rick stays in a modest HDB apartment with his wife, which he now shares with two growing preschoolers. “It makes carving a space for intimacy really difficult,” he says.
“You’re starved of sleep for the early period of having a new kid. Most times you’re just happy to get some shut eye rather than a quickie.”
Obviously, looking after kids will sap your energy. Since both of their kids were born, the couple has had sex “definitely much less”. Rick and his partner would rather take a long nap than to get under the sheets. On a good day, it’s both: “The best sex you can hope for is any sex, followed by an uninterrupted nap after.”
“Uninterrupted” is key – think about the poor parents who are woken up in the middle of a siesta, only to find, before their groggy eyes, a chaos fiesta. Let’s not get into it if little Jayden walks into mom and dad doing it. HDB apartments, compact and effective as they are designed, offer little in privacy for adults when they have toddlers running down a short hallway.
For Rick’s partner, it became especially difficult when she was diagnosed with postnatal depression after the birth of their first child.
“It changed everything,” he emphasized. Heavy mood swings, increased anxiety, sleeping problems, and lots of crying – Rick’s partner had to cope with the chemical changes her body was putting her through.
Sex be damned; he knew the priorities. “I prioritise my partner’s mental well being first,” he states. “I take cues from her initiation rather than to place my needs and urges ahead of that.” Intimacy became less and less important to him – he just wanted his wife to be okay.
Faith & Trust
For Faith Ng, being a first-time mother came with being homebound during circuit breaker in 2020. “It’s a scary and stressful time,” she says.
Faith is a playwright, someone familiar with drawing from lived experiences and transforming them into an intimate spectacle. This has allowed her to look at her own life through a different lens.
It’s no surprise, then, that her latest play, The Fourth Trimester, examines the messiness of happiness and parenthood in modern Singapore. It pushed her to evaluate her own life as a parent and married woman.
She had been juggling different responsibilities after she gave birth, and she tried to do it all “without losing sight” of who she was. And she found she wasn’t alone in doing that.
She talked to parents in different support groups. She spoke with gynecologists, pediatricians, neonatal nurses, midwives. She read stories about sexually flustered Singaporean parents, similar to the one we explored earlier.
As the pages of The Fourth Trimester started to fill up, one of its stories began fleshing out as a breakdown of communication and intimacy between a couple – more importantly, showing how societal pressures play a part in this. But what are some of the societal pressures?
Women “shoulder the invisible and mental load that happens in the family,” Faith says, while men grappling with “traditional and cultural expectations” have few resources to turn to. “It’s tough when you feel yourself going against the tide.”
To her, intimacy means that mutual support is necessary, even vital. To Rick, it’s about being adaptable. “We’re all changing and growing through the life stages; marriage is just another area that is going to be the same.”
If it’s too difficult to handle, see a therapist, he says. “Sex and intimacy are an important part of a marriage, but it’s not everything.”
For now, Rick is finding ways with his partner to heat up the bedroom. What’s he trying? “Toys and pornography,” he says, with two thumbs up.
*name changed to protect identity.